Tag Archives: ATM

In every word, a microhistory

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

14-year-old Anamika Veeramani won 83rd National Spelling Bee on June 4 by correctly spelling the word stromuhr. It’s one of many English words in the contest that sounded decidedly unEnglish. Other words from this year’s contest: barukhzy (from a Pashto word that went through Russian before becoming English) , tanha (from a Sanskrit-derived Pali word), izar (originally Arabic, then went through Hindi before becoming English) and uitlander (from Afrikaans, which formed it from two Dutch words, plus a Latin-derived combining form).

These are all English words…yes, English words, even if they’re spelled according the rules and pronunciation of other languages. There are many reasons for this mongrelization of English spelling, and that’s where David Wolman comes in.

His book  Righting the Mother Tongue traces the anarchic evolution of English spelling. Unlike some languages, English is barely policed: foreign words — often with their foreign spelling intact — migrate unhindered into English. From time to time, people try to impose order, to simplify or regulate the spelling. Even President Theodore Roosevelt tried (and humiliated himself in failing).

The reason for contact between English and all those languages in the first place is colonialism, first British, then American. American colonialism has been as much cultural as political, which has only encouraged the English language to colonize smaller languages.  But the great openness of English is key too:  foreign words, with all those loopy spellings, will thrive in English’s  marketplace of linguistic ideas, if they are descriptive and original enough. Wolman told me he thinks of English spelling as jazzy: rootsy yet improvised, rule-bending, dangerous and inventive. Most kids don’t like jazz any more than they do spelling.

Finally, we remember John Shepherd-Barron, the man who invented the ATM. He died recently, which gave The World’s Alex Gallafent an excuse to point out that you shouldn’t really say ATM machine or PIN number.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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British English as it is, was, and could have been

This week’s podcast is hopelessy devoted to Brit-English. First, the story of what might be the earliest audio archive of regional British dialects. During World War One, German linguist Wilhelm Doegen recorded the voices of more than 140 British prisoners of war. His archive includes  dialects from many parts of the  UK — tows like Aberdeen, Macclesfield, Bletchington and Wolverhampton.  In those days of course, Britain’s imperial reach was global, as was its army’s linguistic reach: Doegen recorded soldiers speaking Hindi, Punjabi, Pashto and Bengali, among other languages. Until recently, the recordings languished in relative obscurity (for the British at least) at the Berliner Lautarchiv at Humboldt University in Berlin. Now, the British Library has acquired a digital copy of the archive.

Then, wine labels.  They don’t make much sense at the best of times. Now, British convenience store chain Spar has found a way to make them almost completely incomprehensible. Spar has ahem, translated them into  some of the same regional accents (though with less of an eye for accuracy) as those recorded by Herr Doegen.  The company says it’s all about making wine talk more regionally relevant. It may also be, excuse the pun, a dry comment on the pretentiousness of label literature. Never one to defer to the European palate, we at the pod add a little New World flavor with a label rendered in Bostonian English.

It’s well known that English is a co-optive language; there’s nothing it likes better than to beg, borrow and steal from anything in the vicinity. It did plenty of that in the wake of a momentous episode in British history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066. That was when William of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard) became William the Conqueror (and later King William I).  Cue the start of French and Latin’s influence over English. Well, what if the Saxons — the English as they’re sometimes called — hadn’t beaten William and his Normans at Hastings, sent them back to France? David Cowley has written a book called How We’d Talk If The English Had Won in 1066.

Finally a couple of stories related to cockney rhyming slang. These days, rhyming slang is barely in use, except in parlor game form — and of course as something to make money out of.  The first story is on an ATM company uses cockney rhyming slang to dispense cash. And then, a little something I did in 1990 for KALX, college radio in Berkeley, CA on the obsessive love that  some Americans have not just for rhyming slang but for anything British.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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